In the Bible, Noah sees a rainbow arc the sky. It is a sign that God will never again destroy the earth with water. Today the refugees of New Orleans and the Gulf region wait for a new covenant with the state, a promise that never again will lives be destroyed by the waters. They wait for jobs, for food and most of all they wait for shelter. Rev. Willie Walker, born and raised in New Orleans, is picking up the pieces of that shattered hope to make a home for them.
I met Rev. Walker when I went to New Orleans a few days after Katrina drowned the city. Houses were buried under water. People eyed me cautiously from their porches. Reverend Walker, with a pistol on his waist, guided me around the city.
He is a preacher at Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church and when I mentioned the irony of the title he laughed, “I was meant to be here. God wanted me to be here to help.”
Unbeliever that I am, New Orleans was the closest I’d seen to Hell. Panicked men lifted skeletal survivors into vans. Bodies floated through the street. I watched Reverend Walker endure the chaos with his faith; it gave him strength to work for days with no sleep, to walk without fear through streets where the law had unraveled and what you wanted you could take.
Six months later, Reverend Walker is working on obtaining transitional housing for city workers, counseling his congregation and stepping through the political redtape that is strangling the city.
INDY: What is happening to those who can’t come back home?
REV. WALKER: The riverboats are busy. A lot of people are taking to drinking and gambling. In the black community, in particular the poor, therapy is taboo. It’s seen as a weakness to have mental health problems, so folks numb themselves. Many of them are dying from heart attacks, high blood pressure and grief. They are uprooted from their homes and the stress of adapting to new cultures is too much. Some are not making it.
They are coming back in bodybags. One of my congregation members, Diane Johnson recently died of grief. She was 48.
Who was Diane Johnson?
Diane was native of New Orleans, she lived in the Ninth Ward. After the hurricane I got her to a shelter and gave her as much as I could. She was a sweet, giving, loyal and powerful prayer warrior who took on her daughter’s autistic child. Diane had a lot of medical conditions like high blood pressure, Crohn’s disease. Most time she did not feel well. I would talk to her. After leaving New Orleans she was depressed and I believe she died of grief.
Is depression common in New Orleans?
The pharmacist at the 24-hour Rite Aid told me he was filling out hundreds of prescriptions a day for depression. There is a lot of suffering, invisible but intense suffering that is going on here. Also it’s not just psychological, because this city is contaminated. A red mold is causing sinus infections and I know young preachers in their forties who are dying from it. They catch it and never recover. The senior citizens are being kept out because of the danger, but its not really being reported.
What is the project you are working on now?
I’m trying to raise money to buy the Mary Joseph Residence for the Elderly. The church that owns it will sell it, and I want to turn it into transitional housing for city workers so they don’t have to drive in and out everyday. New Orleans isn’t going to come back until the city workers can stay here and work.
Is there a difference in how the neighborhoods are being brought back?
Rich neighborhoods like Lake View or French Quarter–the water and electricity came on immediately. In poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, there is still no water and electricity. Even the middle-class black neighborhoods have no water or electricity.
When you read Mayor Nagin’s plan, the white areas are not touched in re-construction but black areas have to prove why they should not be demolished. If they can’t prove why they should stay, they will be bulldozed and a train built through them and replaced by high-rises only the rich can afford.
What did Katrina expose about our nation?
It brought out the poverty. We [New Orleans] had a string of black mayors who only worked for their small circle of friends. Our corrupt politics has bred a tradition of apathy. When I encouraged people to vote they say, “Politicians ain’t gonna do anything.”
We live in isolated pockets and we can’t forge an alliance of love, there is so much hurt and so many lies told and no gestures of apology. Man’s heart in this country has become hard.
What did you do in the first few days of the flooding?
I took my family to a safe place and prayed to God for guidance. I heard Mayor Nagin say, “Thousands people are dead.” I couldn’t take seeing people on TV stranded on their roofs. Early Wednesday I bought water, beef jerky, boots and clothes. When I drove to New Orleans the guards saw my supplies and waved me through. I asked police if I could help and went on rescue missions with them. They didn’t know the city and I led them around. The biggest problem was people running on the boat. They were starving and needed help and were desperate to get out.
How has the experience affected your faith?
It made my faith stronger. The intensity of a crisis shows who you really were. If helping was in your heart, it came out.